Copyright Sophie Neville
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To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/
I saw so many children when I was casting Coot Club and The Big Six that I could have left the BBC and set myself up as an independent casting director, but I was twenty-two and all I wanted to do was to join the film crew on location in Norfolk. I was just not sure how.
Andrew Morgan was a lovely director with two children the same age as those in our cast. To my surprise, I met him with his family one weekend on Port Meadow near Oxford. They had a narrow-boat moored at Bossom’s Boatyard where my father kept his steamboat Daffodil. Arthur Ransome would have approved.
Andrew had previously directed action dramas such as Secret Army, Blakes 7, Buccaneer, Triangle, Kings Royal and two episodes of Squadron, which Joe Waters had produced. Andrew, who was good at delegating, later declared himself, as he cued the steam train on the North Norfolk Railway, to be a director who specialised in films about different forms of transport. He very graciously asked me if I would work on location in the formal role of chaperone to the children whilst preparing their performances for the scenes ahead. He anticipated being out on the water in a boat without enough time to go through the children’s lines with them.
Once the casting was complete and licenses for each child safely lodged with various education authorities I took a weeks’ leave before returning to the production office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, where I helped book transport and accommodation. Filming on the Norfolk Broads for three months took quite a bit of preparation. While Joe and Andrew were casting the adult parts, we had to find a local tutor, buy life jackets and make numerous arrangements idiosyncratic to our particular production. The most exciting of these was commissioning the animal handler, Jan Gray of Janimals, to find a pug dog to play William. She bought a puppy so that he could be accustomed to his character name, travelling by boat, working with children and specifically trained to walk across mud. William had no idea of the stardom that awaited him. He ended up spending a great deal of his life in Gretchen Franklin’s arms playing Willy in Eastenders.
The day came when I packed up the little room I had been renting in Shepherd’s Bush from the actress Zelah Clarke and drove to the Dimblebys’ house in Putney to collect Henry. As he had just passed his Common Entrance he’d been let off school earlier than most thirteen-year-olds and we motored up to Norwich in a jubilant mood, singing most of the way. Whilst most of the production team and crew had found holiday cottages, I was to live at Sprowston Manor, the unit hotel with Caroline Downer, Henry and the other actors including the Matthews twins who travelled up with their mother. It was terribly grand. We had small quiet rooms at the back.
Liz Mace, our production manager, had taken my advice and scheduled ‘running around scenes’ for the first few days of filming, so that the children could get used to working with the film crew. The whole series was shot on 16mm by a wonderful, patient lighting-cameraman called Alec Curtis. We were very lucky to get him. He’d just finished The Kenny Everett Television Show and had worked on a huge number of well known comedy dramas ~ The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin with Leonard Rossiter, Fawlty Towers for John Cleese, The Morecambe & Wise Show, Sorry!, To the Manor Born and a BBC thriller called Scorpion. Alec had made God’s Wonderful Railway and was more than happy working with Andrew on the Bluebell Line for the opening scenes of Coot Club. Filming from a boat presented many more challenges, not least simply keeping the camera horizontal, but Alec was ever patient and kind. And always wearing a sun hat.
I had drawn Andrew endless diagrams of Claude Whatham’s camera pontoon, built with a flat surface to accommodate camera track, that used to make Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District. However a more normal and faster vessel was chosen as the camera boat for the Broads. It had to travel around quite a bit since a far greater variety of locations was required than we had in Cumbria. We also had a couple of glass fibre run-around boats which would sometimes be used for the camera, especially in backwaters too shallow for the larger boat.
When Suzanna Hamilton brought me the diary she kept during the filming of Swallows and Amazons we had time to reflect on the seven weeks we spent together in the Lake District during that far off summer of 1973.
‘We were beautifully looked after,’ she said. ‘I mean we were really well cared for. Look – Jane took me fell walking.’ Our diaries record that our local driver Jane McGill also went to endless lengths to make things fun for us – ever with safety afore-thought.
She was right. My own mother and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother, who had both been appointed our official chaperones, worked day and night with very little time to themselves. They had both left younger children at home in Gloucestershire with their husbands, which can’t have been easy. Mum told me that she wrote an article for Woman magazine saying that being a chaperone was ‘Fascinating, Fattening and Fun’ but it must have been exhausting. It would have been quite a trial preventing us from getting sunburnt let alone keeping us entertained.
When we had to do anything scary or unpleasant during the filming of Swallows and Amazons, such as walk through scratchy brambles, Claude Whatham would assuage any moans by awarding us ‘Danger Money’. It was a huge encouragement. He gave me £2.00 for being good about diving into the chilly water for the swimming scenes. It was a lot of money back then. My mother would make a careful note of it whilst we were still in costume.
We spent our gains in Ambleside buying presents to take back for the stay-at-homes. I think we might have received a little more after Swallow was nearly mown down by the Windermere Steamer, an incident which had actually been dangerous. I am not sure what Kit and Lesley had been doing to recieve £1 each. They may have just got wet and cold sailing.
After all the rushing about in boats, the risks taken clambouring from one vessel to another and inevitable dangers that we faced out on the water, it was the boredom involved in filming that proved most dangerous; children’s games that went terribly wrong ~
This was the swing in question, strung from a tree on the shores of Coniston Water opposite Peel Island where a couple were living in a wooden caravan. The white Make-up caravan, that had previously been used as a dressing room for Virginia McKenna, and later Ronald Fraser, is parked beside it. It was there that I was sent to lie down.
It was a shame that the baseball game ended so abruptly. We really enjoying it and longed to keep playing but Molly realised that it could so easily have been one of us who ended up with a black-eye.
At one stage we all got into whittling wood. Bod Hedges, the property master, made a number of props on location. Different versions of the Amazons’ bows and arrows were carved from hazel on the banks of Coniston Water. He also made forked uprights for the fireplace and various stakes for the charcoal burners’ scene. Suzanna bought a penknife with her Danger Money and became quite a keen carver until the knife slipped. Jean treated the cut finger with such a massive bandage that Claude put a firm stop to any future whittling. It had been the one thing that kept us quite. We were active children yet not allowed to climb trees or get wet. Instead Lesley Bennet plucked away at a tapestry and I painted pictures.
Possibly the biggest danger was getting too fond of the primary objective – catching the bug that is film-making. Richard and Claude still had a few vital scenes to record and yet the weather forecast was bleak.
If you ever see a cormorant you must sing out, ‘They’ve got India-rubber necks!’
And then, if you are on a long journey you can add, ‘ Cormorants. We must be near the coast of China. The Chinese have cormorants. They train them to catch fish for them. Daddy sent me a picture.’
If you ever get lost – or the journey really is a long one, you can say,
‘Here we are intrepid explorers making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets will be revealed?’
They were most complicated speeches to deliver afloat, ones I had to learn. In the end the second part was heard OOV – out of vision. I could have read the lines. But then they wouldn’t have stayed in my head forever, as they have.
If, on your journey, you happen to see a man sitting in a chair writing notes you score high and can say, ‘What’s that man doing? He’s probably a retired pirate working on his devilish crimes.’
(I’m a bit hestitant about that one because my Aunt Hermione really was approached by pirates when she was sailing round the world. The Daily Mail published her dairy chronicling the adventure; a full page double- spread with photographs no less. Rather sadly they ran headline ‘Intrepid Pensioners…’ What a swizz. She should have lied about her age and said she was 27 instead of 60. Well perhaps 57, what with the photos.)
The scene behind the camera that day on Derwentwater was rather different from from the scene in front of it.
I’m pretty sure that the photographs below were taken this same day. Please let me know if the far bank is indeed Derwentwater or if I am mistaken and this was shot on Coniston.
I got cold sailing but it was a glorious sunny day with a fair wind. We achieved a huge amount even if Cedric fell in. As you can see, some of the boatmen and crew were wearing life jackets, others were not – including my mother. We wore BOAC life jackets for rehearsals but Swallow is a safe little boat – her keel ensuring we didn’t capsize if we happened to jibe and we never fell in. The pontoon was really rather more dangerous being a raft with no gunwale. Any one could have misjudged their step and plopped overboard. Luckily we were not stiffled by Health and Safety in those days – only the rigorous demands of movie insurance companies.
I’m sure we had already shot the first two scenes of the day when I was in Amazon, setting the anchor and later hearing the robbers. I expect Claude needed to re-shoot for technical reasons. Day-for-Night filming requires clear, sunny days and he would have needed still water.
I have some of my father’s 16mm footage showing us at around this stage in the filming. It was shot on a different day but shows us on the shores of Derwentwater, waiting around before rushing off across the lake in motor boats to finish filming before Claude lost the light. You see the pontoon and a safety boat towing Swallow, me snapping bossily at Roger to get a move-on, (unforgiveable but I was 3 years older than him and irritated to distraction), the third assistant Gareth Tandy in blue with glasses, our sound recordist Robin Gregory throwing his arms wide open, Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett by the lake shore, David Blagden with his short hair-cut splicing rope, me in my Harry Potter-ish blue nylon track-suit top with Albert Clarke the stills photographer, Swallow and some mallard duckings.
What a day!
A bright sunny day on Derwentwater. I wore what was my favourite costume, not least because I had the option of wearing a vest beneath the blouse and I didn’t have to worry about the divided skirt. I went to such an old fashioned school that I had a pair of grey flannel culottes myself, to wear on the games field, and thought them very much the sort of thing Titty would have worn. Roger, meanwhile was in long shorts or knickerbockers as the real Altounyan children would have called them, kept up with a snake belt. His even longer underwear was an item requested by Claude Whatham the director who, being born in the 1920s himself, had worn exactly the same sort of underpants as a child. As the day warmed up Claude stripped down to a pair of navy blue taylored shorts and sailing shoes. We were on a desert island after all. Even if it was a desert island in the Lake District.
In Arthur Ransome’s book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the hunt for the treasure is slightly different and Captain Flint’s trunk lies buried under rocks. I wasn’t expecting the set-up with the tree trunk, although I think it works well and looks good, giving movement to the sequence. The only hesitation was that Claude didn’t want me to get hit by the rocks as they slid off. This was a pity as I would have jumped aside.
I am not sure why the Amazon had not been bailed out. I can remember having to lie in the bilge water, which proved cold and uncomfortable. Perhaps it gave my performance an edge. Titty would have been cold and stiff aftrer a night wrapped in the sail. Great grey clouds were gathering by then and we were all getting tired.
Being together in a confinded space becomes difficult to endure after while, not least when the space is a pontoon on a lake with not much to sit on. Small boys tend to muck about and become annoying when they are bored. The time had come when someone was going to crack – and they did. The result was silence. A sobering moment. And one very wet pair of knickerbockers.
In the end three of us went home in wet underwear. Gareth Tandy, the third assistant director – who I think was only about 18 – was pushed in to the lake, this time to great hilarity.
The big question, of course, it what is the name of the island on Derwentwater that we used as the location for Cormorant Island? Duncan Hall has written in to suggest it is called Lingholm Island (or possibly One Tree Island)What is the name of the larger island, seen in the background of shots, that represents Wildcat Island? Is it Rampsholme Island?
I have one behind-the-scenes clip of the crew on the pontoon – shot on a sunny day, I think at the southern end of Coniston Water. It looks most bizarre. It was. You can see how crampt and overloaded we were and guess at the patience demanded of us all. Imagine how long it took to set up shots, while totally exposed to the elements. It was quite a stable raft but when we went for a take it was vital that everyone kept comepletly still or there would have been camera wobble. We used a conventional boat with a cabin when we filmed ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broards ten years later in 1983. It proved much easier – but had more wobble.
Ronald Fraser! veteran of World War II movies who had won an award for playing Basil Allenby-Johnson in The Misfits had arrived on the shore of Coniston Water. Curiously so had two Stand-ins. A short lady for me, with dark hair, and a lady with blonde hair for Suzanna. I have blonde hair and Suzanna is dark, but that is how it was. The other four actors didn’t have stand-ins, which seemed odd. Simon West and Stephen Grendon, the two boys were younger than us, so that seemed odder. And we were some way into the filming. However the ladies were very excited about coming over to Peel Island. They sat in our positions and read our lines back to Ronald Fraser whilst the scene at the camp site was lit, and returned to stand-in for us later when his close-ups were shot. Somehow they managed to do this in scanty summer clothing dispite the brewing storm.
Our stand-ins got a lot of help from the crew as they went from boat to shore. We didn’t really, but then we were used to it and had to wear life-jackets. Mummy didn’t wear a life jacket, but she has always been surprising good at getting in and out of boats too.
My mother’s present day comment on the whole matter of my stand-in is concise: ‘I don’t think she was invited. I think she just turned up. Most unsuitable for a children’s film.’
The poor production team. I think the recording of our scene with Captain Flint on Peel Island went well, and that Claude Whatham the Director was happy with the result, but my diary reports how a Force 8 gale came in. The Call Sheet for 20th June documents how truly unpredictable the weather was. We had a ‘Fine Weather Call’, an ‘Alternative Dull Weather Call’, ‘Rain Cover’ in the Houseboat cabin and a pencilled-in end-plan entitled ‘Peel Island’. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, had a 1970s embroidered patch sewn to his jeans which read: THE DECISION IS MAYBE AND THAT’S FINAL.
In Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons there is a dramatic storm with lashing rain. We were rather disappointed that it was not included in David Wood’s screenplay. It could have been shot that afternoon, but this was not to be. I can remember Mum saying, ‘You can’t have everything.’
What had been good about the 20th June was that we, the Swallows and the Amazons, were all together, not sailing but on Peel Island, with the novelty of working with Ronald Fraser for the first time. Kit Seymour, who played Nancy Blacket and Lesley Bennett in the role of her sister Peggy, had been so patient, waiting day after day for their scenes with their Uncle Jim to come up. They were stuck having endless lessons with Mrs Causey in the red double-decker bus most of the time. But the fact that they were on Stand-by was hugely helpful to the Production Manager who had to wrestle with the film schedule and Call Sheets.
As it was the storm blew hard but cleared the dull-weather clouds and the next day was glorious, one to remember forever…
It was a glorious day to film on Windermere. Conditions were perfect. My father had been asked to appear as a Extra in the scene in the film of Swallows and Amazons when the the crew of Swallow narrowly miss colliding with a steamer, that transports tourists up and down the lake, on their voyage to Wildcat Island. He was the tall dark native in a blazer and white flannels aboard the very elegant Lakeland steamer, The Tern. A lovely way to spend a sunny morning in the Lake District.
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon and I were in the Swallow, which at the start of the day was attached to the camera pontoon so that Claude Whatham, our Director could capture the dialogue on film. In the script Roger is down to say, ‘Steamship on the port bow’. I think what came out was, ‘Look John! Over there – Steamer ahead!’
My mother had been obligued to go to Bristol as she presented a weekly programme for HTV with Jan Leeming in those days, so Dad must have been in the dual role of chaperone. A sailor with years of experience racing on the Solent he took a keen interest in all our sailing scenes.
…‘Carry on Matron’. I wonder what near disasters they had on that film.
How do you film two girls sailing a thirteen foot dinghy talking to their brothers sailing along in another small dinghy while calling out to two other girls in red bobble hats dancing about on a wooded island both the small boats are approaching?
The scene looks so simple on paper. It is the one when the Swallows sail back to Wildcat Island with the captured Amazon to find Nancy dancing with rage and Peggy anxious to get home. One page of script. Claude soon discovered that he was shooting the most complicated of sailing scenes. On a cold grey day in the Lake District. It is extreemly difficult to describe how he managed this, but I will attempt to do so.
There was no room in the dinghy Amazon to film Susan and Titty sailing. This had to be done from a boat or vessel lashed along side. The production had a pontoon especially built for this purpose. It was a 30 foot raft equipped with four outboard engines, surfaced with a number of flat ‘camera boards’. It was basically rectangular but with added arms on either side. The idea of this cross-shaped platform was to enable Claude to film us either side-on, from astern or across the bows of the dinghy, which was wired by its keel to the pontoon. The camera was normally on a tripod but could be mounted on a short section of track. Electric lighting was not something that could be used on this pontoon but two large reflector boards were used to light our faces instead.
As well as the Director and Camera crew, the Sound Recordist and ‘Boom Swinger’ were on board this pontoon along with Sue Continuity girl, Costume and Make-up, obviously the two boat men who drove it and David Blagen, the Sailing Director. He had to work with Claude, the wind and the boatmen so that we were sailing, while the pontoon travelled with us. This was tricky enough on open water. If we were near the shore it could become more difficult. As you can imagine the dinghy could easily start to sail away from the clumsy pontoon – or worse. Our mast socket broke that first day. They needed my father on that pontoon. He there, quietly was watching from the shore.
Although we had all read the book of Swallows and Amazons, and were devoted to adhering to every detail, no one remembered that John and Titty sailed the captured Amazon back to Wildcat Island. She had a centre board which was a new thing for the Walkers so John decided to let Susan helm their familiar boat. I wish this had been detailed in the script. In the film, John was with Roger in Swallow whilst Susan and I were in the Amazon, which was a pity. I can only imagine that Claude decided this because he was trying to achieve a very difficult ‘three shot’. He was relying on John – on Simon West, who was aged eleven – to keep sailing Swallow in the right position, whilst out on the water between Amazon and Wildcat Island. This wasn’t as easy as it looks. You can see from this photographs that Swallow kept racing ahead of the pontoon. It can be gusty around Peel Island and the rocks can be lethal. Roger was on lookout but he also had to deliver his lines. Having no centre board and a shallow 1920’s rudder Swallow can be difficult to turn or get going if the wind slacks. This wasn’t actually a problem; Simon had wind and he did brilliantly. Suzanna Hamilton did too. She had no previous experience of sailing the Amazon. No one had remembered this sequence when we practiced before the filming began.
Meanwhile Gareth Tandy, the third Assistant Director, was standing-by (probably for hours) on Peel Island with Nancy and Peggy. He had hide in the bushes and cue them at just the right time. They did so well. They had to deliver their lines while jumping from rock to slippery rock to keep up with both the Swallow, the camera and the story.
This picture was taken by Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of Swallows and Amazon, on a different, obviously warmer, sunnier day. It shows Susan climbing in to Amazon. I include it here to show the pontoon with its outboards and odd cross panels. Here there are at least twelve on board. I think that by this time costume, make-up and our chaperone would be in a separate safety boat, in this case a Capri. This would mill about with the life jackets, sunhats and warm clothes that we wore between set ups. The crew all started off wearing life jackets, but as you can see they were soon discarded. They were dangerous things, old BOAC ‘life vests’ with so many flappy straps that you were at risk of being trapped under water by them.
When we filmed two of Arthur Ransome’s other books, Coot Club and The Big Six, on the Norfolk Broads in 1983 the BBC Producer Joe Waters used a 35 foot river cruiser as camera boat. It could be difficult keeping it stable during a take, especially with so many people on board, but being a proper boat it was much easier to manoeuvre than the pontoon. And faster. Andrew Morgan, the Director still managed to get his camera angles and it had the advantage of a cabin where sensitive equipment such as film stock and lenses could be stored. I can remember the Camera Assistant changing the film on board. I don’t know if the boat had Heads. May be.
On both productions we had the inevitable problem of modern boats coming into shot. We had to have one of two men in zoomy motorboats that could zip across the open water to ask them to move clear of the shot. Even with this control you can imagine what happens. You line up your shot with all your boats in position, the sun comes out and a modern motorboat roars across the lake leaving you all rocking in its wake. Then it rains.
The good thing about having a Safety Officer in a frog-suit is that they can carry you to shore at the end of a long day. You don’t have to get your feet wet.
The question is – Did the DOP and the director get carried ashore too?